Changes in the Meanings of Individualism and Democracy in America

Virginia R. Bensen

During the nineteenth century, the terms democracy and individualism have taken multiple meanings, and those meanings have become interchanged throughout Western Europe and in America. The interchange of the term democracy and individualism stems from early nineteenth century Germans. The French during this same time denoted the term individualism as egotistical and selfish. By the 1840s the meaning again changed in English and French to denote the ideal of the free individual and was used by the French to describe Americans. By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans used the terms self-reliance, and self-made man to interchange with the term individualism. (1)

Nineteenth-century American philosophers challenged the interpretations of these two terms and provided newer meanings that seemed to adapt better to an industrialized society. According to historian Koenradd W. Swart, he describes the term individualism to have three definitions: rights of man or political liberalism, the doctrine of laissez-faire or economic liberalism, and romantic individualism. (2). Historian Louise Knight uses these same three meanings to describe the three definitions of the nineteenth century word democracy. (3) Swart’s first meaning of individualism is political liberalism, which is described by Knight’s first definition of democracy as the right to vote. Swart’s second meaning, or laissez-faire economic liberalism, is described by Knight  as economic, but further describes it as “the freedom of the individual to act in his own best interest, to compete, to obey no one but himself.” Swart’s third meaning of individualism takes on the romantic sentiment. This is labeled as “social” by Knight and is described as promoting a feeling of equality among people from all walks of life. All three meanings of both these terms became highly contested during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. According to these two historians, these three different meanings of democracy and individualism caused much of the basis for dispute during the Progressive Era in America.

Concept of Democracy in America 

Both sociological, historical and philosophical theorist studies have tried to grapple with the concept, definition, principles, and applications of the term democracy. According to many sources, the term and concept of democracy are multi-dimensional and requires certain prerequsites existing in a nation’s political and societal conditions. (5) Much of the scholarly literature regarding democracy tends to focus on the conditions, components or outcomes of democracy. (6) In rhetoric, the term for democracy can become a means toward fulfillment of social justice. (7) A journal article by Larry Diamond and Leonardo Morlino, “The Quality of Democracy: An Overview,” summarizes clearly and succinctly the components and attributes of a democracy. At minimum, a democratic government requires universal adult suffrage, recurring and free competitive and fair elections, more than one serious political party, and alternative sources of information. After these three requisites are met, then a government must achieve three primary goals to maintain and to further develop that democracy. Thee goals are political and civil freedoms, popular sovereignty, and political equality of rights and powers. (8)

American modern democratic theory is based upon the concept of the nation-state and the assumption that political communities can control their destinies and that citizens can come together to form a view of what is best for them within a view of common good. According to David Held, America’s founders took for granted that all the critical elements of self-determination could be specified with respect to systems of representation and democratic accountability. The founders further acknowledged that clear-cut distinctions could be elaborated and the national institutions built upon the difference between internal and external policies and between domestic and foreign affairs. It was further assumed that ” the nature and possibilities, and the freedom, political equality and solidarity could be entrenched in and through the nation-state.”(9). This construction of our national democracy has been contested by social, economic, and cultural groups, including the woman suffrage movement. America’s theory of “democracy” as it emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, created a link between the populace, citizenship, electoral mechanism, and the nature of consent. This evolved theory also created the boundaries between the nation and the states. (10) As the democratic theorist, Paul Fairfield points out, the application of democracy in a government has the “capacity not only to cope with change, but to embrace it.” The capacity for change is among the most fundamental points of distinction between democratic politics and its various alternatives. With these many linkages, requisites, and inherent ability to change, grasping the concepts of democracy can be confusing and challenging, even among scholars. (11)

Another area in the study of the term democracy has been the creation of subtyping “democracy,” and with premising definitions of democracy to fit specific situations.  Subtypes have been used when describing a “democracy” that is missing specific attributes of it. This has been used in the study of woman suffrage. Examples of this concept are the combining of two terms such as male democracy, or oligarchy democracy. An example of Precising the definition of democracy is exemplified in the use of the term industrial democracy.

According to democratic theorist, Paul Fairfield, one of democracy’s salient features is “the desire to stand to other persons in a relation of fundamental moral equality, where ostensible moral differences between persons (or indeed between nations and cultures) are decisively rejected and persons in general stand to one another as equals.”(12). Fairfield also claims that another feature of democracy is the peaceful and regular transformation within a constitutional order. Both statements imply that the existence of peace must be present for an effective democracy to exist. (13)

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